An Intercultural Dilemma
Time immemorial, body modification has been a fascination of human culture. Ancient Mayan skulls show evidence of cranial modification. Excavated Hun’ bodies show evidence of scarification. From a thousand years ago to the early 1900s, Chinese women had three inch feet due to foot binding.
Ancient Egyptian Mummies showed evidence of female circumcision Female circumcision is defined as the partial or total removal of a female’s clitoris. Originating in Egypt, it spread to tribes on the coast of the Red Sea, to Arab traders, and eventually to Eastern Sudan. In the 1800s, female circumcision was also used in Europe and the U.S as a believed cure for masturbation and homosexuality. The practice remains in effect today in 28 African countries as well as in some Middle Eastern countries. Of late, Female circumcision, unbecomingly dubbed ‘Female Genital Mutilation’ (FGM) has gained international limelight.
The debate centers on two different perspectives on the issue. The propagated perspective opposes FGM and calls for taking steps of intervention based on human rights, while the other advocates considering the cultural underpinnings of the practice. Contrary to projection of this practice as an Islamic one, history shows that the practice predates Islam by over a millennium and has deep cultural roots and widespread cultural underpinnings. It is primarily a cultural and not a religious practice. This essay attempts to illustrate that when evaluating an age old cultural practice one cannot measure it based on a one- sided set of values.
The publicized perspective calls for an unconditional ban on the practice, labeling it as a human rights violation. Their broadcasts evoke commiseration for those undergoing it and indignation for those advocating it. Among those highly vocal in this camp is the World Health Organization (WHO) According to the WHO “FGM is a violation of the human rights of girls and women…It also violates a person’s rights ….
to be free from torture…or degrading treatment”(WHO). Since human rights are held in high regard in western society, the emphasis on human rights violations has led the public to look at the practice indignantly and therefore support banning it. Another proponent of immediate ban is the author Victoria Belle-Miller.
To captivate readers who may dismiss the matter as a fringe issue, Belle-Miller and several others in her camp emphasize accounts of female circumcision in the U.S and Europe. Miller’s article “Important Strides Taken to End the Inhumane Practice of Female Genital Mutilation” labels female circumcision as “a monumental problem in several countries, including the U.S” (Belle-Miller). By asserting that FGM has spread to Europe and America, Belle-Miller makes readers who would otherwise dismiss the issue feel that they have a stake in the matter, which encourages them to join the anti FGM campaign.
In addition, she further captivates those who already favor eradication. Popular media has also been largely on the side of total eradication, often citing the inhumanness of the practicing countries. An article in the London Daily Telegraph gives the account of a female circumcision case which was to be performed in London. It states “a five-year-old girl is due to be brutally mutilated and left permanently disfigured – and the suspects are the child’s parents.”(Lambert).
The article portrays oppressive adults willing to ‘brutally mutilate’ their own child in the name of culture. By showing the practitioners in an inhumane and unreasonable light, the media invokes a sense of exigency to put an end to the ‘brutal mutilation of helpless children’ and thus gains support of the anti-FGM campaign. To add to the oppressive image of the practitioners, media artists also give accounts of practitioners trying to stifle efforts to abolish the practice. Miller’s article includes the account of an African immigrant, Fatima Mohamed, living in the United States who “refuses to perform FGM on her daughter” (Miller). She states (although does not directly quote), that Fatima says “immigrant families feel tremendous pressure when deciding whether or not to implement the tradition” (Miller).
Accounts such as these convince the public that intervention would be liberation of the people from the ‘oppressive advocates’ of circumcision. While those for eradication highlight human rights violations and portray female circumcision in a cruel light, the opposing view calls upon the public to go beyond the frantic campaign for eradication and to consider the cavernous cultural roots of the practice. Thinkers such as Dr. Richard Shweder, a cultural anthropologist from Harvard University, persuade readers to give Africans and Middle Easterners the benefit of the doubt, to look past the sensitized broadcasts, and question the subjectivity of an argument based on human rights alone.
They venture to claim that activists and international organizations envelope their desire to universalize their own cultural preferences in a blanket of human rights arguments. In his essay “When Cultures Collide: Which Rights? Whose Tradition of Values? A Critique of the Global Anti FGM Campaign”, Shweder calls upon readers to debunk biases towards practicing countries, and look into the intention behind the anti FGM campaign. He writes “If you read and believe those statements…that you find in the popular press, then you must conclude that Africa is indeed a “Dark Continent”…You must believe that African parents are (a) monsters (b) fools (who are incredibly ignorant of the health consequences and the best interests of their children (c) prisoners of an insufferably dangerous tradition that they would like to escape or (d) that African women are weak and passive and live under the thumb of cruel, loathsome, or barbaric African men” (Shweder 184). He dismisses the media’s harsh portrayal of the practicing countries as cultural partiality and brings the reader to the realization that the African people are capable of thinking for themselves and do not need western intervention. Those who oppose eradication dissect the argument based on human rights.African scholar Augustine H.
Aasaah of the University of Ghana invokes human rights in favor of female circumcision. She cites Article 3, the right to life, liberty, and security of person, and Article 18, the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion (Universal Declaration of Human Rights), in support of a people to exercise their cultural prerogatives. Aasaah supporting the practice as a local educated woman calls into question the implications that women who undergo circumcision do so because they have no choice. Also, given that she uses the same document to defend FGM that international organizations use to decry FGM, it would show partiality to argue that the violation of one right on this document is more serious than violating another. Therefore, claiming that the human rights violations that FGM entails are “more serious” than the ones Aasah mentions would be a display of bias.
Though FGM may not be one of today’s most essential topics, the chasm it creates poignantly highlights underlying cultural misapprehensions. The debate over the practice emphasizes the impasse of opposing ideologies created by attempting to judge an age old cultural practice through a purely intellectual prism. As today’s problems become more complex, the sense of right and wrong is blurred into a tangled frenzy of cultural partialities. Ideas from thinkers like Barry Schwartz and Julian Huxley may provide some guidance to help resolve conflicting positions such as those on the two sides of the debate on FGM. Barry Schwartz seems to represent intellectual humanism where Julian Huxley is a proponent of pure humanism. In his recent lecture on TED.com, Schwartz invokes Aristotle’s philosophy of practical wisdom and says that “Dealing with other people demands a kind of flexibility that no set of rules can encompass. Wise people know when and how to bend the rules…how to improvise” (Schwartz). The practitioners can perhaps bend their rules to make FGM medically safe and “humane” to those who willingly accept the procedure. The indignant opponents can also perhaps bend “their rules” to consider the cavernous roots of a practice in a particular culture Julian Huxley, a 19th century Oxford thinker who taught at what was then the Rice Institute, seems to stand for pure humanism. In his book “The Human Element”, he writes “The most vital task of the present age is to formulate a social basis for civilization, to dethrone economic ideals and replace them by human ones…” (Huxley).
A corollary to Huxley’s idea could be “to dethrone intellectual ideals and replace them with human ideals”. The practitioners can perhaps consider the humaneness inherent in the language of the United Nations Charters and make the practice more voluntary than otherwise. Opponents of the practice can perhaps borrow a page from Huxley and apply human ideals of sensitivity to the needs of an “alien culture” prior to applying law and intellect to address the problems faced by another culture. As today’s world brings cultures together, problems are no longer just “theirs”. They are “ours”.
But for universally acceptable solutions to emerge for any problem, understanding must trump pedantry. Purely intellectual/legal considerations should give way to human ones that take into account cultural histories. Perhaps never before in human history has this become more essential than now as cultures from all the different continents enmesh. Works Cited Birch, Nicholas. “An End to Female Genital Cutting?.” Time Magazine 4 Jan 2008: n.
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